Aleksandar Vucic is not someone who beats around the bush – and certainly not when it comes to the refugee problem afflicting Serbia. The country sits on the transit route of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Balkans to Western Europe, and has been overwhelmed by the recent influx, especially from neighboring Macedonia.
The prime minister, who once served as a propaganda minister under former Serbian dictator Slobodan Miloševic, hopes his country will one day join the European Union, but in the meantime is calling on it to share the burden of the worsening humanitarian crisis.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Vucic, Macedonia has opened its border with Serbia to migrants. What is the situation of the thousands of refugees in your country?
Aleksandar Vucic: We are reacting earnestly and responsibly. We are treating the refugees well. We are doing our best. The migrants are satisfied with their treatment in Serbia. Up to now, there has only been one incident. But we can’t solve the problem.
What is required?
All of us in Europe must work together closely. Not only the countries on the Balkan transit route of the migrants have a fundamental interest in that. The treatment of these desperate persons who have left their home countries such as Syria under tragic circumstances is a matter of concern for all of Europe.
How is Serbia responding to the increasing number of refugees?
We are building a reception camp in the capital Belgrade for around a thousand migrants. In addition, we have reception camps in southern Serbia and are building another one in the north of the country. The winter will come. So we have to offer the refugees better living conditions as quickly as possible. We are living up to our responsibility.
Is the situation getting worse because of the opening of the border by Macedonia?
On Sunday night, we sent more than 3,000 refugees back across the border. In return, we accepted 5,000 migrants who are being helped by our institutions, the army and social organizations. It isn’t easy to provide for such high numbers of refugees.
Many arrive without documents …
It is incredible that when migrants enter E.U. territory in Greece, the authorities there apparently feel no obligation to register them. Here in Serbia, we register many of them for the first time. They reach our soil from Greece via Macedonia without any documentation.
Your neighbor Hungary is currently building a 175-kilometer-long fence along its border with Serbia. Is that a solution?
We are in consultation with the Hungarian government and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Our relationship is quite good. But regarding the issue of the new fence along the border, there is no agreement between our countries. Building fences won’t solve a single problem in Europe. The migrants will simply find other routes to Western Europe. The building of the fence by Hungary unfortunately reminds us of our past in Eastern Europe.
This year, 45 percent of new arrivals in Germany come from the western Balkans. Do you have sympathy for the fact that people are leaving your region?
When we talk of refugees from the western Balkans, then this is primarily a matter of the Roma [a much-persecuted itinerant ethnic group]. They only want to get their hands on the financial aid of the German state. That’s what I’ve told the German government and state prime ministers such as Horst Seehofer [of Bavaria]. We are requesting that Germany significantly reduce financial help for refugees from the western Balkans. Then the problem with migrants from the western Balkans would solve itself very quickly. I’m convinced that less money in Germany would discourage many refugees from the western Balkans.
On Thursday, there will be a conference in Vienna on the western Balkans, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in attendance. What are your hopes for the summit?
Frankly, the most important goal of all the participants must be political and economic stability in the Balkans. For that reason, Serbia and the other countries of the region need political support. We want to return to a path of growth. That is important for us – and not any nationalistic games that some want to play.
Has the German government paid too little attention to Serbia and the Balkans up to now?
On the contrary: No other government in the European Union concerns itself so much with the region, especially Ms. Merkel. I’ll tell you quite openly: No other country sends a higher number of ministers to Belgrade than Germany does. We are thankful for the great support – especially from the German chancellor.
Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is a correspondent for Handelsblatt covering Eastern and Central Europe. He is based in Vienna. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org